116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
AMES — Iowa State head football coach Matt Campbell always embraces uncertainty. It’s where potential meets reality — and a heady convergence point several mostly unknown Cyclones find themselves this season.
“I feel like our sport is this game of imperfections,” Campbell said a few months ago at a Tailgate Tour stop in Ottumwa. “That failure is almost certainly coming and yet it’s (about) your ability to be humble enough to grow through it and grow from it.”
So when compiling an incomplete but intriguing list of five questions to ponder as ISU’s fall camp begins in earnest, these unknowns top my chart.
1. Who are (some of) these guys?
The Cyclones will have new starters at marquee positions previously occupied by some of the best players in program history, such as quarterback (Brock Purdy is now with the San Francisco 49ers), tailback (Breece Hall is with the New York Jets), and linebacker (Mike Rose is with the Kansas City Chiefs). Enter redshirt sophomore quarterback Hunter Dekkers, a handful of top running back hopefuls such as Jirehl Brock, Deon Silas, Eli Sanders and Cartevious Norton, and linebackers Gerry Vaughn — who is slated to be a full-time starter for the first time in his career — and Colby Reader, a transfer from Delaware.
How well these players and several others dotting the two-deep on both sides of the ball perform will go a long way toward determining if ISU can extend its program-record strings of winning seasons (currently five) and bowl appearances (also at five).
2. Can returning anchors on defense keep the Cyclones among the Big 12’s best units?
A lot is made — and for good reason — about ISU losing two of its best all-time tacklers at linebacker, Rose and Jake Hummel, to graduation, as well as the departure of several key players in the secondary and on the defensive line. But the Cyclones do return sacks leader Will McDonald at defensive end, former Cedar Rapids Washington standout O’Rien Vance at linebacker and all-Big 12 cornerback-turned-safety Anthony Johnson. All have emerged as leaders and must continue to hone that skill in order to extend the Cyclones’ streak of finishing third or better in Big 12 scoring defense to six straight seasons.
3. How will the tight end room shape up?
ISU lost record-setting veterans Charlie Kolar and Chase Allen to the NFL, but valuable hybrid tight end Jared Rus is back to lead a mostly young group. Easton Dean, Tyler Moore and DeShawn Hanika are poised to make a broader impact this season, but this is truly a “who’s got next” situation that will likely remain fluid throughout camp.
4. Kicking it.
The Cyclones finally found a kicker who could routinely achieve touchbacks last season, but Andrew Mevis has graduated. Can Keegan Shackford, Drake Nettles, true freshman Jace Gilbert (or anyone else) do the same?
It’s a big question, because special teams snafus have been the one persistent issue during the Campbell era. Mevis helped iron those out. They still need work — and that’s true in terms of punting and the return game, as well.
5. Can the offensive line go from serviceable to consistently good?
ISU’s best all-around offensive lineman, Trevor Downing, moves to center this season. By all accounts, that’s gone well, but most of the Cyclones’ line will be populated by players with eight or fewer career starts. The notable exception is guard Darrell Simmons Jr., who has started 24 times and could help Downing create a strong core up front.